The Iron Law of Stardom dictates that stardom cannot last longer than three years.
Adam Rifkin stashed this in Time
Louis Menand gave this law its name:
Tom Hanks won the Academy Award for Best Actor in both 1993 and 1994, beating out eight of our most respected actors. Does anything prevent him from winning the Oscar forever? Yes: the law of the three-year limit, otherwise known as the Iron Law of Stardom.
This law dictates that stardom cannot last longer than three years.
It turns out that no deep thinking -- no intelligence of any kind -- was necessary to uncover the single formula that explains the vast and variegated panorama of human achievement.
One apparent countexample can be disposed of at the start: the Beatles' six-year reign was, in fact, two consecutive three-year terms. They were two different groups: lovable mop tops (1964-67), and hippie artistes (1967-70).
"Stardom" is here used in a particular and technical sense, as a discrete and recognizable episode in the life of a star. It is the intersection of personality with history, a perfect congruence of the way the world happens to be and the way the star is. The world, however, moves on. The star does, too, an animated relic.
Tom Hanks may win the Oscar for Best Actor again, but if he does people will just enjoy the reminder, as they did when Al Pacino won an Oscar for "Scent of a Woman" in 1992. Pacino had already had his three years of stardom (1972-75). One of the performers who succeeded him, John Travolta, is now enjoying stardom by virtue of being the person who was John Travolta -- the same reason Elvis enjoyed stardom again in the last three years of his life. But the Travolta revival itself can last only three years.
Stardom is the condition in which the star penetrates reality so thoroughly that you feel you can no more escape it than oxygen. Then, suddenly, there is different oxygen. Stardom is coincident with the Zeitgeist, but the Zeitgeist is never coincident with any one stardom.
It's a mistake to think that reality turns over completely every three years. It does so every nine years -- in three-year phases. If time is a staircase, reality is a Slinky. Decades can be parsed.
Television, frequently accused of destabilizing life, is actually what stitches the segments together. This is because the entire history of television is the history of just ten shows, each of which dominated the ratings for roughly six or roughly three years: "I Love Lucy," "Gunsmoke," "Bonanza," "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In," "All in the Family," "Happy Days," "Dallas," "The Cosby Show," "Roseanne," and "Seinfeld." What causes the fadeout after three years isn't the star, but the imitation -- a steady increase in wattage that burns out the whole fixture. As the Beatles displaced Elvis, "Star Wars" did the same to "2001: A Space Odyssey," Tom Hanks to Tom Cruise, etc.
New successes are the reverse images of old successes. The law governs every type of human endeavor, including politics and literature. There was a period (1919-22) when T.S. Eliot personally was in tune with the Zeitgeist, and there was a period (1948-51) when T.S. Eliot was right and necessary for everyone else. The same is true of Camus, Saul Bellow, even William Blake.
The world moves much faster than a life. People can only be themselves, and hope that at some point history crosses their path. What is true of our stars is true of ourselves: there must be some point at which you and history are closest together. For many people this may have been high school. The bad part is not knowing until the end which three years your three years were. For it only lasts three years. This must be true, of course, for the theory of the three-year limit itself. Today it seems so obvious, so inevitable, so right. But within three years it will have vanished, a sublime testament to its own inexorability.